Unconfused and Wanting to Gaze
407 · 14 November 02
Hitomi Yaida: i/flancy
I have crossed an interesting line in my Japanese studies. It's not a big line, necessarily, and I ardently hope it's not the last line I'll cross, or even notice crossing, but the sense of discrete progress is exhilarating all the same. I can now think in Japanese. At least, I can in this very limited and specific sense: within the constraints of a still-tiny vocabulary and a not-yet-complete (even if I could remember it all at once) repertoire of grammar, I can sometimes hear or read something in Japanese, and then react to it in Japanese, with the response-processing in my head taking place in Japanese. Only occasionally, mind you, can I manage this. Most of the time I'm still painstakingly translating everything into English, figuring out how I want to reply in English, and then translating that English back into Japanese. Or, more accurately, most of the time I'm still trying to translate the Japanese into English, realizing it involves some usage I've either forgotten or not learned, and resorting to the growing tower of subtly different dictionaries now weighing down the non-CD-bearing end of my desk. Five minutes later, with a shaky grasp of what was expressed in Japanese, the dictionaries and I are ready to begin assembling earnest errors into a return comment that is, when I'm lucky, close enough to how it was supposed to be phrased that my teacher will be able to correct it without my having to explain its intent in English. Did I ever reach this point with the other languages I've studied? It's a little hard to say. In German, French and Swedish, the word patterns were different, but the thought patterns were largely the same. In Japanese, the thoughts themselves are actually different. Oh, and the words, and the letters. And I still clearly have a long, long way to go, as even in a simple pop song or page of manga I continue to hit basic-looking constructs I don't know what to do with, and about the best thing I can say for my kanji-recognition skills is that if a character I should know by now comes up four times in close succession, I will usually only have to look it up the first, second and third times. Still, it's heartening to make progress. Ninety percent of the language may still be spread out in front of me, but after being exposed to the first ten percent, two or three percent has sunk in deeply enough that I can now use it. Subsistence-level competence is another year away, maybe, but just a month ago I would have guessed two or three.
The biggest difference between this language experience and my others, plainly, is that this time I actually care. German, French and Swedish were never more than school subjects to me, and ones I wouldn't have taken if they didn't fulfill requirements. It might sound faintly impressive that I studied three different ones, but I think that was actually the biggest cop-out of the whole process, allowing me to simply repeat the most superficial early stages of learning without ever getting to the point where very much was expected of me. I did no more than I had to, and unsurprisingly, got vanishingly little in return. I say, when I tell the Swedish story, that on the way out of the building after taking the final I forgot everything but the pronouns, and I went back and finished forgetting those after some lunch. I used my German once in college to help puzzle through Dutch subtitles on a French film about Austria, and I tried to use some French for the first time when I was in Belgium last year (despite the fact that we were usually in the part where they don't even speak it). And Swedish? I don't even remember using it to say hello to classmates outside of class.
Japanese, on the other hand, I'm pretty much awash in at this point. Between class, music, anime, movies, eavesdropping on restaurant conversations, gadget packaging and children's books, I now have some Japanese in almost every day, and quite a lot over the course of most weeks. Cultural absorption proceeds in parallel to language study. In non-animated Japanese film, I know only the tiniest amount, a handful of recent films and another handful of classics. In anime I have a little more breadth, but less history. And in music I'm almost pathologically current; anything I know from more than a couple years ago I owe to backtracking from newer albums. But pop music is ahistorical by nature, or at least obligingly recapitulates itself. Staying current and following threads will largely get you by, which it absolutely wouldn't in film or literature. My records show that a year ago this week I placed my first CD Japan mail-order, and after a year of following Japanese pop I'm probably approximately as fluent in it as I am in the language. I know a bunch of things that I like, and I've blown through enough obvious leads that in many cases I've also gone back and confirmed that I don't like the things I didn't think I did. I don't yet know enough for my standing new-release needs to provide a constant supply, like they do in English, but I'm getting closer.
Candlize, Hitomi Yaida's second album, was only a couple months old when I got it in January, and I've been actively anticipating her third since the first post-Candlize single, "Ring my bell", reached me in April. She seems less exotic to me now that Puffy, Ayumi Hamasaki and Nanase Aikawa aren't my only points of reference, but after her minor crossover success in the UK, I'm probably a less exotic fan as well. Any fears I had that she might attempt an opportunistic Western breakthrough were dispelled the moment I read the album title on a pre-order list. I have no idea what she thinks "i/flancy" means, but it's clear that no English speaker had anything to do with it, much less any English speaker with a day job in selling things to other English speakers. I wish it seemed a little less silly, but the font is dignified, and the booklet photos are pensive, and I settle in for what I hope will be an ambitious album. I think of Hitomi as occupying Cyndi Lauper's spot midway across the art-to-pop continuum, approximately, so I'm hoping for this to be Hitomi's Hat Full of Stars.
Dignity, however, doesn't turn out to be i/flancy's primary agenda. It opens with a loud guitar squawk and an exuberant rock stomp called (and it's English so you can't pretend it's anything else) "Creamed potatoes". "Creamy creamy / Creamed potatoes / Dublin de tabeta aji o / Once again", she chirps, "Dublin de tabeta aji" being approximately "the flavor of eating in Dublin". This could be the beginning of a Proustian madeleine meditation, I suppose, and perhaps Remembrance of Things Past would have been more honest (or at least more complimentary to the madeleine baker) if it had included a bit more of Hitomi's happy shrieking in place of some of Marcel's philosophical scrutiny of the nature of time and memory. However, I feel quite certain that if Proust had had a band, they wouldn't have stormed through this song with anything like this headlong enthusiasm. "Mikansei no merodai" ("Incomplete Melody") starts out in a more sedate vein, with little synth noises and a percolating drum track, but once the guitars join in it too builds back towards rock drive. And even these two are reduced to introduction by the arrival, at track three, of the clatteringly berserk second advance single, "Andante", which for me comes closer to the manic energy of early-days Cyndi or Missing Persons than anything in English since Shampoo.
Conversely, though, track four is the other advance single, "Ring my bell", which I still think is one of the year's most beautiful chiming mid-tempo love songs, electric guitars soloing languidly, acoustic guitars (and mandolins?) sparkling, backing vocals cascading glassily, Hitomi obviously smiling while she sings. If there's anything inherently limited about this song's appeal, I'm missing it. "Wasurenaide" is "don't forget" and "hanasanaide" is "don't stay apart", that's about all the Japanese you need to know to enjoy the choruses. Otherwise, it sounds like a girl in love, young enough that that doesn't scare her.
The pace picks up again slowly. "Niji no doraibu" ("Rainbow Drive") is appropriately glittering, reusing some of the poised melancholy from Hitomi's "Fast Car" cover. "Change your mind" switches in braying guitars and slow, heavy-handed drums, and Hitomi lets her delivery edge just slightly into the abrasive, but the bounding "Dizzy dive", the b-side from the "Ring my bell" single, sends me spinning once more, engagingly clangy piano tracking Hitomi through a rapid-fire chorus that demonstrates again the inherently rhythmic nature of the language's syllabary. "Aitai hito" (approximately "The person I want to meet") gets darker by the end, but not before a graceful alternation between guarded, ticking verses and grand, cymbal-crashing choruses.
And then, in the last three songs, the effects of Hitomi's travels suddenly start to manifest themselves explicitly. Either she or her tapes made the trip to Dublin for Peter O'Toole of Hothouse Flowers and Liam O'Flynn of Planxty to add bouzouki, uilleann pipes and tin whistle to the sturdy "I can fly", and Sharon Shannon and Altan's Ciaran Tourish to play accordion, whistle and violin on the wistful ballad "I really want to understand you". A side-trip to London allowed Imogen Heap to provide some eerie quasi-Bulgarian backing vocals for the end of "I can fly", and the pair of songs mounts a brief bid for a support slot on the next Corrs tour. If Hitomi were really set on global stardom, though, she'd probably have sung more than just the title phrases in English, and for the finale, she takes the Celtic spirt back to Japan and synthesizes the impulses into, just when I was thinking the album might not have another one, a soaring anthem as magical as anything from the singles, with warmly grumbling bass, silky sitar twinges, ringing piano and encouraging drums. "Myounichi no tegami" means "Letter From Tomorrow", I think, or something similarly anticipatory. "Dakara mou mayowanaide mitsumetetai wa", the last line, is something like "Therefore I'm more unconfused and want to gaze". "I don't want to stay", Hitomi sings in the only English phrase. This is what love gives us, even in the nights when there's nobody specific at whom to direct it: the capacity for it is the willingness to let unopened letters from tomorrow pull at you. If possibility, which ought to be confusing and obscure by its nature, makes you surer you can see forever, you are still alive.
Chitose Hajime: Hainumikaze
Hitomi Yaida and some stray Irishmen, however, is not Japan's current delegate to world-music. For that we have Hainumikaze (the translation of which eludes me), the solo debut by Okinawan singer Chitose Hajime, previously known for a well-exploited Deep Forest cameo. Okinawan folk music ("shima uta"; "shima" is island, "uta" song) is based on minimal, drone-ish accompaniments and fluttery singing somewhere between Western melisma and Indian wail, and this album attempts to convert it into palatable pop by recasting the usual stark accompaniment with glimmering acoustic guitars, quiet strings, muted drums (some programmed) and other assorted percussion, not entirely unlike an unplugged version of Deep Forest without all the other ethnic affectations. In Japan, the experiment was a rousing chart success. In the parts of the world not as easily charmed en masse by microtonal vibrato, its commercial potential is probably more limited. If you can imagine Jewel's Pieces of You redone with better (but disciplined) musicians and a whole lot more yodeling, though, and not cringe while imagining it, then you might well like this. It treads an interesting line between primitive vitality and modern professional poise, and after much consideration I think I've concluded that I like Chitose's singing a lot, but hope her next album is more something than this. The pop urges here are a little too disciplined, I think, and I find myself too often wishing that they'd either take a song over completely or just leave it alone. This compromise seems too obviously calculated to me, too carefully polite everywhere it could have been raw or defiant. My hope, I guess, is that this album was successful enough that it earns Chitose a little respect, but not success enough that it burdens her with expectations.
Eri Shingyoji: Power Strip
It's instructive, in fact, to compare Hainumikaze to Eri Shingyoji's unabashedly manic third album Power Strip. The level of musicianship on Hainumikaze is significantly higher, especially in the area of actual instruments played with actual human hands, which on Power Strip are badly outnumbered by robots with fused restraining bolts. Eri sings like a Powerpuff version of Emm Gryner, and it doesn't take very much translation effort to suggest that I'm probably enjoying this as dizzy nonsense as much as I would if I understood it. This is the soundtrack to another wing of Japanese culture I haven't spent much time in, where cities never close, all the anime involves elves transforming into war machines, and nobody seems to have anything to do other than bark into glowing cell phones, be advertised to, and wear cooler shoes than you. The cover has a bunch of blurred Eris zipping around an anonymously bleached-out high-rise waiting room in ersatz Road Warrior clothes, and if you know enough for that to suggest a musical style, Power Strip comes about as close as I can imagine to providing it.
And sure enough, I like it. At times it's a little shrill, but at least it's not afraid of itself. Eri can do pretty when she feels like it ("Kakera" has a "More Than a Feeling"-ish acoustic-guitar riff and plays like a slightly more muted version of Emm's "Beautiful Things"), but I'm happiest when she doesn't bother. The album's defining diptych, it seems to me, comes right in the middle: "Sing My Life" is already thrashing through its verses when suddenly Eri leaps most of an octave straight up and attempts to strangle the chorus to death before she hits the ground again. Guitars and drums spray everywhere, eminently worthy of JUDY AND MARY or Siam Shade. "Ya-Ba-I-Ne" ("Dangerous!", more or less), next, crashes through shouty chanted verses to a double-time punk-sprint chorus that ends with a coy reprise of the end of the Urusei Yatsura theme. Elsewhere, "Crazy for You" wraps spindly acoustic jitter around peppy, handclap-lined, faintly Latin choruses, "TNT" deploys roaring armageddon guitar samples Shampoo would envy, "Happy Wedding" undercuts its blaring arrangement with a slower, calmer vocal, and "Alive" converts a slower pace into menace and later hope. Maybe the most fun I have with any single song is the strikingly Emm-like "Yukimi", the chorus of which sounds like an inspired dance-pop remake of Don Henley and Patty Smyth's "Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough". The intro and outro repeat the melody on a cell phone, and we're not done inventing tiny gadgets until we can fit an Eri Shingyoji's worth of intensity into the smallest one.
Statistically speaking, though, I still generally prefer ethereal to frantic when they're done equally well. globe are one of the bands I dismissed in my first pass, and I even dismissed them again in a second pass, after buying Lights2 and not thinking it sounded much like Every Little Thing. But Lights2 starts its song numbering at eleven, and comes in a box meant for both discs, so I kept listening to Lights2 hoping I'd discover a concrete excuse to buy the first one. While waiting for that to happen, I started liking it.
globe are nominally a trio. Tetsuya Komuro writes, produces and plays most of the music. A woman named Keiko sings. A Japan-born French guy named Marc Panther "raps", although based on this evidence I think it unlikely that Japan-born French rappers are about to school Brooklyn. On the earliest globe albums Keiko's unsteadiness and the prickly nature of technology sometimes gave the songs a jagged edge I'm not sure Komuro intended, but by now he's basically perfected his idiom. Musically, globe sound like a techno studio's house band. Komuro is the grand master of those slow-evolution synth patches that make you just want to hit a C and let it twitter for a couple minutes, and there are long sections of globe songs in which there's not much more complicated than that going on. But Keiko sings prettily, like a less smurf-ish Ayumi Hamasaki, and I like synth noises, so I'm usually quite content to hear her sing over them. What makes the two Lights albums a quantum leap, though, for me, is how adroitly globe have intertwined dance arrangements and pop melodies. "Many Classic Moments" melds synth grandeur on the order of Jean Michel Jarre's Les Chants Magnetiques to a deadpan disco drum-machine groove and kaleidoscopic arrays of multi-tracked Keikos. In headphones it's breathtaking. In the first section of the delicate "Merry Go Round" Keiko tries on a few of Chitose Hajime's vocal flourishes, but in the second she and Marc set up a bracing duet against a backdrop of massed angels and bell-like piano. "genesis of next" sounds like a dance remix of itself, but "Come Into Existence" starts simmering and ominous, and mutates into robotic and hammering. "Megami" ("Goddess") wraps a sweet piano lullaby in only a few layers of synths, but "try this shoot" is a full-scale Dalek invasion with a blue diva kidnapped along, and if there's anything the Daleks haven't mulched by the end of that, it gets taken apart and shredded by the utterly astonishing six-minute synth-opera remake of the Supremes' "Stop! In the Name of Love". "Lights brought the future" is another Keiko piano showcase, with a raspy voice-over from Marc in the middle, and "fade in2" is just Komuro showing off for a couple minutes.
The second disc picks up exactly where the first one left off, finishing the remaining stray minute of "fade in2" and then almost nine more of another similarly-minded instrumental called "TRANSCONTINENTAL WAY" before finally letting Keiko and Marc back in for the airy "OVER THE RAINBOW". "Knockin' on the door of my heart" doesn't quite live up to its Roxette-ish title, but "STARTING FROM HERE" sounds like Japanese ABBA. Marc's rap on "Hitori goto" ("Every Person"?) evokes Carol Decker's on T'Pau's "Heart and Soul", but the stiff, silvery "edge of darkness" is closer to Propaganda. "INSPIRED FROM R&B" (the "R" and "B" turn out to be red and blue, not rhythm and blues) may be the whole set's most straightforward soundtrack-pop song (or would have been if they'd cut if off at three minutes instead of five and a half), "US" is the second disc's quiet Keiko-and-piano piece, and "liquid panorama" is a solo turn for Marc that I find strangely compelling despite there being no melody and the synth parts sounding a lot like "Friends of Mr. Cairo". The concluding reprise of "Many Classic Moments" allows you to have the two discs transition into each other no matter which order you play them in, or just loop them indefinitely. Taken together, only once, they're a one-hundred-and-ten-minute double album with an average track time of over five minutes, but for me they go by effortlessly, like the time-lapse city nights in Koyaanisqatsi. The Koyaanisqatsi DVD missed a great opportunity to have alternate soundtracks, come to think of it. Yes, its Glass score is integral, but I think we could make one out of Low songs, for example, and probably two more out of Radiohead and Björk. All four of those, though, including Glass's, would be irremediably tainted with paranoia. The city shots are cool, but in the movie nature always trumps technology. There's a part of me that believes that, but not the productive part. My Luddite rages pass. The best human machines are some of our best, and most courageous, work. In globe's version, technology gets a chance. Lights are the most instinctually compelling devices, after all, the most basic thing we can't do with our own bodies. So testifies our music: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, The Downtown Lights, Searchlight, Turn On Your Lights, Turn On the Bright Lights. Doubt is cheap, and often wise, but darkness is entirely realistic, and realism is grim. Light and faith and awe are what differentiate us from the animals in which we are contained.